Legends of Myself 76

Posted on May 12, 2013


klemtu76. Inside Passage, 1960:  Klemtu Brides

Klemtu was once—and I suppose still is—Klemdulxk, which is Tsimshian for “blocked passage.”  There was once a thick forest of kelp to slow traffic in Klemtu harbour.

The village has also been called Kitasoo—which I suppose it still is in some households.  That’s Tsimshian for “place of two peoples.”  It’s an appropriate name because the Xai’xais, a Heiltsuk people, have always been part of that community, with long and legitimate claims of their own to Swindle Island.

For a while White folk called the reserve China Hat after the shape of Cone Island across the way, which shelters the site of Klemtu from the open water.  That name has been discarded as superfluous, so far as I know.

There are a few miles of road binding that community now, but when I arrived at Klemtu in 1960, there was no motor transport except on the water.  It was a village of wooden houses, tides and boardwalks, a typical cannery town of that era, if also an Indian reserve.  My father left me there to remain a little while with a woman and her family, meantime going off on some business.

I remember my Klemtu caretaker was always busy in the kitchen.  Along with the purely domestic, she also worked there to supplement her income.  She deep-fried donuts, frosted them and sold them for a nickel apiece.  One time she tossed sugar and butter and it-didn’t-seem-like-much-else into a pan and made toffee.  (I suppose she added salt, too.)  Somehow those so-ordinary ingredients hardly seemed sufficient for the result.  I had witnessed my guardian in Gitanmaax brew ginger ale from scratch, which impressed me, but producing toffee in a pot from sugar and butter didn’t seem much removed from alchemy.

I’ll go down the float, get some lead-line, and maybe you can turn it into gold for me, please.

My visit in Klemtu was really just a stopover on the way to somewhere else.  Aside from donuts and mystic toffee, I remember only two incidents in particular.  In the first, a boy, not much different in age from me, got hold of a girly magazine and tried to show me–here it is–what naked women looked like.

Uh-uh.  Not me, I said.

I’m not sure what I would have seen if I had looked—those were more prudish times with tamer erotica than the present era—but I wasn’t interested.  I was suspicious and off-put by the way the boy talked and the leer in his attitude.  I just turned my face away and refused to look at the magazine or the pictures in it.

The second incident, hardly qualifying as an incident at all, was really just a sentence that a woman spoke.  She was young—I can’t at this distance say how young—Aboriginal, sitting around a table talking with another Aboriginal woman. 

“When I get married,” she said, “I’m going marry a White man, not one of these lazy Indian men.”

It was just a sentence, but it was a sentence imbedded in much sociology and history.  I don’t quite remember what I made of it, then; I’ve had opportunity to make quite a lot of it since.

Folk wisdom, sociology and evolutionary psychology all identify a social reality in at least one of the woman’s root sentiments.  An old American colonial ballad provides an illustration.  In “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn,” a young man loses his crop to procrastination and laziness, and then loses his sweetheart.

Single I am and will remain;
A lazy man I won’t maintain.

Most men hardly like to admit it, but women are constitutionally more practical than men, on the average.  In traditional times, in recognition of their hardheadedness, the Tsimshian matriarch wielded ultimate veto power over bargains and matters affecting the family estate.  So practically speaking, in respect to the political economy of the family, women will often resist installing a husband who can’t or won’t contribute to the household.  It’s really all about the children, as evolutionary psychology explains it.

However, if you add pervasive, culture-wide, racism to this brand of female practicality, then the matter can go awry.  Nowadays it is very bad, but in 1960, it was even worse:  White males can find work easier than Aboriginal males, and their options are wider and more financially rewarding.  Aboriginal women find more doors open, if even they are still humble doors, than Aboriginal men, a mirror of the relative circumstances of African-American women and men in the United States.  That’s colonialism and racism, too.

On the West Coast, in addition to the broader reality just described, adjustments in the fishing industry in the 1950s and 60s, the closing of local canneries, the rising mechanization of the fleet, etc., meant that many opportunities previously open to Aboriginal men were drying up, migrating south, rising beyond their price range or lapsing outside the reach of Aboriginal credit.  Canneries which had earlier provided work for Aboriginal families and communities around nearby Rivers Inlet had been closed as recently as the 1950s.  The cannery in Klemtu kept operating off and on for a few years longer during that era, but, as it happens, in 1960 it was shut down too, placing 300 cannery workers and associated fishers on idle.

Lazy Aboriginal fishermen leaning on railings.

Forget logic or history or closing canneries.  Prevailing social wisdom agreed that Indians were lazy.  The laziness of Aboriginal men was presented as fact in my father’s fifth grade geography text.  What had the would-be Klemtu bride been taught in school?

That is how racism departs from prejudice.  Racism is power and prejudice together.  Racism is prejudice made part of the curriculum.  It shows its potency when the victims of racism accept its judgment.

The teacher is heard from.  The preacher is heard from.  The cop and judge are heard from. Tonto on the radio is heard  from.  Power speaks.

Now a woman is heard from.  “I won’t marry a lazy Indian man.”

Hear the echo, Teddy?

Today when I ride the bus, I see that advertising couples still know the protocol, now less explicit.  Seen but not spoken.  Unlike any possibility in 1960, advertising couples are sometimes mixed, tan and white, but seldom in our liberal, progressive and yet still colonial and racist world, is the white half of the mixed couple a female.  Usually, it’s a male.

Yes, anybody can marry whom they please, and in 1960, Teddy didn’t much care about marriage at all.  But it became obvious when he thought about it later (and he thought about it a lot later) that there was a sexual dimension to this fix he was in, this business of being who he was, his father’s and his mother’s son.  When the barbarians came to attack your village, wasn’t one of their goals always to run off with the village’s women?  Racism was still working on accomplishing the same thing.

And succeeding here and there.

There go the barbarians with another Tsimshian bride.

But in 1960, although I suppose he felt and noted the insult, it didn’t matter much to Teddy whom he would marry.  That was a longer slower question to carry away with him. The question in Klemtu was where he would go next.  As it turned out, the answer was back to Hartley Bay.

Posted in: autobiography